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Who Spiked the Water at 1745 Broadway?

It’s been a very strange week for the world’s largest publishing company. First we had Wednesday’s surprise announcement that Crown svp and publisher Steve Ross would be moving to Collins, with Tina Constable stepping in to take his place. Now comes last night’s announcement that Daniel Menaker was jumping ship from Random House‘s eponymous imprint, though it remains to be seen if the party line that the decision was “absolutely mutual” will hold up under scrutiny.

Maybe it’s because the current edition of Publishing Revolving Door takes me on a time warp all the way back to 2003 – ancient history for some, but important history nonetheless. Menaker, after 26 years at the New Yorker, first joined Random House in 1995 and continued uninterrupted there save for a sixteen-month stint at HarperCollins, which ended in 2003. The company he returned to was not the company he left behind. They had moved to sleek new offices in an office condominium between 55th and 56th streets; Ann Godoff was gone in one of the most publicized oustings in recent memory; Little Random had been absorbed in the same umbrella containing Ballantine and its holdings; and at the center of the new-look imprint was, and still is, president and publisher Gina Centrello. Taken together, these were clear signs of the company’s increasingly commercial shift that would play out in a major way over the next four-plus years. And yet Menaker was hired to give Little Random a distinct literary bent, which he did in the form of novelists Benjamin Kunkel, Arthur Phillips, Gary Shteyngart and Jon Clinch as well as former poet laureate Billy Collins, even if said acquisitions didn’t necessarily pay off in terms of sales.

No matter how much Menaker, Centrello and the Random House brass want to downplay the bottom line, it’s difficult to play by their rules in light of the company’s most recent shakeups – not to mention their gutting of the sales force, Bertelsmann‘s attempts to patch up the mothership after getting scared straight by former minority shareholder GBL’s threats to take their holdings public (Bookspan, anyone?) and a downturn in profits. All of which has to make one wonder about the overall health of Random House – and if more “unexpected” news is just lurking around the corner.

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